This week on the Daily Show, host Trevor Noah poked fun at Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley for a question CNN's Chris Cuomo asked him about any advice he might give his Iowa backers about their second choice at the February 1st caucuses. But Iowa Democrats' caucus rules in fact make this a very sensible question. With Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton seemingly in a very tight contest to win the state, Gov. O'Malley supporters' second choices may tip whether Sanders or Clinton wins more state and national delegates.
The Iowa Democrats' caucus rules essentially are a "walk the vote" form of ranked choice voting. That is, if your first choice isn't going to help that candidate win any delegates, you still have a chance to have your vote count for your next choice among the viable candidates -- in this case, not by ranking candidates, but by doing the next best thing of physically moving within the caucus room to the group of voters with your next choice.
This dynamic has had a big impact in previous caucuses -- like the much bigger Democratic fields in 2004 and 2008 when many caucus voters settled on second choices, and big winners in securing second choices included John Edwards and John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.
O'Malley's problem is that the world will never know how much support he had. For instance, suppose a caucus will elect 10 local delegates and that the first vote at the caucus is 45% for Sanders, 45% for Clinton and 10% for O'Malley. O'Malley's voters break toward Sanders, who ends up with 52% to Clinton's 48%. But the only numbers from that caucus to be reported centrally will be 5 delegates each for Sanders and Clinton. In other words, it's not a one-person, one-vote tally, and candidates below the 15% threshold take the biggest hit.
Iowa Democrats don't report raw vote totals out of deference to New Hampshire's seemingly iron grip to have the nation's first primary. (Aside: I keep expecting the hashtag #PrimariesSoWhite to take off -- Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the nation's least representatives states.) Republicans do report raw numbers, but offer a different problem. As spelled out in Josh Putnam's invaluable Frontloading blog, Iowa Republicans will be remarkably inclusive in their allocation of delegates to the national convention, with candidates securing at least 1-30th (3.33%) of the vote earning a delegate. The large Republican field is going to end up with candidates with less than that threshold -- potentially including Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who each finished first in the caucuses in 2008 and 2012 respectively. Those voters' won't get a second choice, even though caucus voters are using technology this year that would make it easy to have cast a ranked choice ballot.
Ideally, the parties would combine these approaches in future elections. My suggestion for a combination of rules for a state contest that binds delegates would be: 1) use a ranked choice voting ballot; 2) use a proportional allocation rule for delegates rather than winner-take-all; 3) use the ranked choice ballot to re-allocate votes for candidates below the threshold before doing the final allocation of delegates; 4) use ranked choice ballots to determine a majority winner when you reduce the field to two in order to determine who should have the real "bragging rights" as that state's winner.
But for now, keep in mind that Martin O'Malley's level of support will in fact be higher than what is reported Monday night -- and some Republican voters are going to walk away not having cast a vote that elected delegates because they didn't get a second chance.